When Stress Has a Chokehold on Your Life
Do you remember the opening scene in Star Wars: A New Hope when Darth Vader grips a crewmember aboard Princess Leia’s ship in a chokehold as he asks questions about where the transmission with the Death Star plans are?
Stress is very much like Darth Vader’s chokehold; it grabs you by surprise, constricting your airways, as you struggle to breathe. It’s in your best interest to get out of that chokehold as soon as possible before the lack of airflow to your brain causes serious damage to your body or even death in extreme cases.
The first time I encountered real, air-constricting stress in my mid-twenties, I didn’t even recognize it for what it was. I had been in stressful situations before throughout high school, university and my job in a coffee shop, but I was always able to move on from the stressful situation and life would go back to normal like nothing had ever happened. Sometimes the stressful situation would be memorialized in my journal, but the act of writing it down seemed to calm my nerves and return my body back to a state of peace.
Not this time, however. I was working in my first office job as an administrative assistant and the demands of each day had been piling up on my shoulders for weeks now. I started experiencing tightness in my chest and difficulty breathing and I didn’t understand why. I had asthma, but I wasn’t having an asthma attack. This felt different, like there was a tight band squeezing me breathless as if I was a lemon.
Finally, one day I couldn’t stand it anymore and asked my mom to take me to the hospital to get checked. The ER doctor barely took a look at me before prescribing me Lorazepam, which is a drug used to calm a person during an anxiety attack.
I remember feeling so angry with the ER doctor and I left the hospital feeling embarrassed and humiliated. How could she think I was having an anxiety attack? I didn’t have anxiety. Anxiety was what “crazy” people had and I wasn’t like that.
I decided the ER doctor was a quack and booked a doctor’s appointment with my regular family physician a week later, but I also left that appointment disappointed when my family physician didn’t disagree with the ER doctor who had prescribed me “crazy” pills. She even wrote me another prescription for the “crazy” pills and encouraged me to take one pill anytime I felt tightness in my chest.
I reluctantly filled the prescription and tried taking a pill when my chest felt tight, but I noticed that it made me feel drowsy instead. Since I was having trouble sleeping at night, I decided to use the pills to help me sleep. They helped to make me sleepy, but didn’t necessarily improve my sleep, so I stopped taking them after a couple of weeks and refused another prescription from my doctor during a follow up appointment.
That was my first encounter with what would become crippling anxiety years later when the chokehold became tighter and tighter until I could no longer function normally. My stress levels rose from a minor discomfort in my teens to a snarling monster in my thirties.
What is the Stress Monster?
Before you continue reading my story, let’s pause and take a look at the definition of stress. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Stress is a normal psychological and physical reaction to the demands of life. A small amount of stress can be good, motivating you to perform well. But multiple challenges daily… can push you beyond your ability to cope” (Mayo Clinic).
In other words, stress is normal and it even acts as our best defence when we find ourselves in threatening situations. “When your brain perceives a threat, it signals your body to release a burst of hormones that increase your heart rate and raise your blood pressure. This ‘fight-or-flight’ response fuels you to deal with the threat” (Mayo Clinic).
Every living creature has a ‘fight-or-flight’ response hardwired into their brains and humans are no exception. This is what drives us to act quickly during a dangerous situation, either by running away or by fighting whatever is trying to harm us. Because of this response system in our brains, we know what to do in the event of an emergency situation, such as a fire, without giving it much thought.
Once the threat has passed and we’re safe again, our bodies are supposed to return to a relaxed state and we can resume life as normal. But what happens if we encounter one stressful situation after another? The ‘fight-or-flight’ response remains active and it pumps your body full of a stress hormone known as cortisol (Mayo Clinic).
If this goes on for a period of time, chronic stress can lead to serious health problems, such as anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, memory loss, and/or concentration impairment (Mayo Clinic).
What causes the Stress Monster to Rear Its Ugly Head?
Many factors can cause stress. The major stressors include: job pressures, relationship problems, and/or financial concerns. However, there are minor stressors that can add up over time, such as daily hassles and demands (e.g. waiting in a long line or being late to a meeting). Major changes and life events, even positive ones such as getting married, buying a house or starting a family, can contribute to your overall stress levels, too (Mayo Clinic).
In my own life, I started to experience too many changes and stressors within a short span of time which made recovery from stress difficult, even impossible at times. Here is a brief timeline of events:
- I graduated from high school in 2003 and started university the following semester where I met and started dating a guy from my English class. That year, my grandfather passed away suddenly the day before my first mid-term exam.
- Over the course of two years, my relationship started to get pretty tense with my parents. I abandoned my faith and stopped going to church. My boyfriend broke up with me the same weekend my sister left to go to Bible college a province away. The morning after we drove my sister to Bible college, my dad received a phone call that his sister and brother-in-law, my aunt and uncle, were killed in a motorcycle accident.
- A year later, my mom started to get really sick and had to have a hysterectomy. During this time, the arguments I had with my dad increased. My sister dropped out of Bible college and returned home before Christmas as she battled with crippling depression for the next few years.
- After I graduated from university in 2007, I started my first professional job as an administrative assistant at the credit union in my town. My grandma started getting sick and I moved in with her in November. She passed away five months later.
- I moved back home in May 2008, but my relationship with my dad was not good. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in August that year. A month later, my Papérè (my dad’s father), passed away.
- In 2009, my sister and I bought a house a couple blocks from my parents’ place, and we took our younger brother and sister with us, leaving my parents empty nesters. Things were still rough with my dad but manageable as I learned more and more about bipolar disorder and how to handle it.
These were some of the early stressors I experienced within a span of six years, which didn’t exactly give me a good start at learning how to handle stress in adulthood. It was no wonder I was experiencing tightness in my chest that made it difficult to breathe.
Had I recognized the early symptoms of stress and sought help at the beginning, I might have been able to release the chokehold stress had on me and stop the monster from growing into crippling anxiety. The consequences for not acting early enough were severe and didn’t just affect my mind but affected my physical body as well.
How does the Stress Monster affect your health?
According to the Mayo Clinic, chronic stress can have an effect on three things:
- On the body: Stress can cause headaches, muscle tension or pain, chest pain, fatigue, upset stomach, and/or sleep problems. It can also contribute to long-term problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and/or diabetes.
- On mood: Stress can cause feelings of anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation or focus, feeling overwhelmed, irritability or anger, and/or sadness or depression.
- On behaviour: Stress can result in overeating or undereating, angry outbursts, drug or alcohol misuse, social withdrawal, and/or less desire to exercise.
In late 2017, I began to encounter stressful situations more frequently at my workplace. The stressful situations really started much earlier, as early as 2015, but it was in late 2017 when it started to have serious negative effects on my health.
At first, I would lose control of my temper and have an outburst at work, which usually ended with me curled up on the floor in the bathroom crying my eyes out. These outbursts began to happen regularly, at least monthly but sometimes as often as once or several times a week. By October of 2018, they were occurring daily.
It wasn’t until I read a blog post titled, “A Glass of Wine Did Wonders For My Anxiety,” which described the author’s own anxiety journey, when I finally realized that I was experiencing panic attacks. Once I identified my outbursts as panic attacks, I thought I could get through it on my own and that I could get myself better. Little did I realize, however, that I was beyond self-healing. The ‘fight-or-flight’ response centre in my brain was stuck in the “on” position and I could no longer shut it off.
How to Break the Stress Monster’s Chokehold
ASK FOR HELP! I can’t stress this enough. Seek help before it’s too late. Visit your doctor and talk to a counsellor or a trusted friend. Listen to your doctor’s recommendations, take the medication he or she prescribes to you, give your body the rest it needs, and remove yourself from the stressful situation as soon as possible.
By the time I went to see my doctor, dozens of red flags had popped up everywhere. I was experiencing symptoms of intense pain in my back and I had pulled a muscle in my chest during a panic attack. I felt intense fatigue, a constant burning sensation in my stomach, terrifying nightmares, foggy vision, and memory loss.
I spent my free time binge watching Netflix shows and sleeping fourteen hours a day on the weekends. On weeknights, I slept two to four hours a night or sometimes not at all. I ate too much junk food, cried constantly, and withdrew from everyone around me.
My doctor immediately prescribed me Lorazepam for the panic attacks and Citalopram for the anxiety and depression. She ordered me to stay home from work for two weeks and seek counselling. She even encouraged me to look for a new job and my counsellor had the same recommendations.
I started to feel better after two weeks of rest, so I returned to work for a few more months, but I soon realized I wouldn’t be able to get better if I continued to subject myself to the same stressful situations over and over again.
I applied for temporary disability through my work insurance but was denied because the insurance company didn’t deem workplace stress as a valid reason to go on disability even though I was experiencing serious medical consequences as a result of it. I was too exhausted to argue and to jump through their hoops to try to get approved, so I did the only other thing I could think of: I broke the chokehold and quit my job.
I didn’t have another job lined up. I didn’t have the energy to even contemplate looking for a new job. I had mortgage payments to make and bills to pay. I had enough money in savings to last for a few months, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to fully recover in that short a period of time. So I sold my house and moved into a relative’s basement until I could heal from my wounds and get back on my feet.
How to Keep the Stress Monster at Bay
If you have taken away anything from my story, I hope you learned how important it is to recognize the symptoms of stress and act immediately to get it under control before it gets a tighter grip on you.
Don’t wait until your symptoms get so bad that you end up hospitalized or worse. Stress may not be able to kill you directly, but it can certainly cause serious health problems that will eventually kill you or mental problems that may cause you to take your own life.
When you begin to feel symptoms of stress, first identify what is triggering it and then write down a list of strategies to deal with it and implement them. In addition, maintaining a healthy lifestyle by eating healthy, exercising regularly and ensuring you get a good night’s sleep are all important factors that help you to manage your stress before it turns into a monster.
Here are a few tips to try next time you feel your stress levels rising (Lara DeSanto):
- Take three minutes to focus on deep breathing. Controlling your breathing will help to restart the command center of the brain which will help to lower your stress levels. You can also practice other mindfulness techniques, such as yoga, Tai Chi or meditation.
- Watch a comedy or a short video that makes you laugh. Laughter tends to lighten up the mood. As the saying goes: laughter is the best medicine.
- Take a break and go for a walk. Remove yourself from the source of the stress.
- Schedule some time in your day to relax. Go for a massage, soak in a bubble bath, dance, listen to music, and/or read a book. Limit your screen time by turning off the TV, tablet, iPad, computer, cell phone, etc. Quiet reflection away from digital distractions and other stresses is essential to quiet your mind, especially for sleep.
- List the things you are thankful for. Expressing gratitude stimulates the dopamine reward center of the brain, which calms down the negative stress effects of both the mood and the body.
If the above methods don’t work, however, then remove yourself from the stressful situation if you can. Unfortunately, some stressful situations can’t be changed, such as an illness of a loved one or going through a divorce. In this case, you can work on ways to change your attitude and reactions to the stressful situation and/or seek professional help to get you through it. The sooner you put an action plan in place, the faster you will overcome its hold on you.
A year has passed since I left my job and I’m feeling a lot better, but my body hasn’t fully recovered from the hell I let it go through before seeking help. As a result, I have only been able to work a couple temporary jobs over the last year and I still don’t feel quite ready to return to a regular job.
All isn’t lost, however, as this time off has inspired me to turn my two biggest passions, writing and crafting, into part-time jobs with the hope that they will eventually turn into full-time employment. My two blogs, “Small-Town Girl at Heart” and “The Ticking Heart,” were born as a result of my time off and I’m happy to say they are both getting off to a great start! I look forward to seeing where these two blogs take me in the near future.
You are not alone.
You. Are. Loved.
I hope you find love, hope and peace in these words.